Momentous Momentum in "The Music Man"

In the 1962 film, The Music Man, a conman named Harold Hill tricks the people of River City, Iowa into buying musical instruments. If only they had studied a little physics, they would have never been so easily fooled. Everyday Einstein delves into the classic movie to discuss the importance of momentum.

Lee Falin, PhD,
March 7, 2014
Episode #091

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In the classic film The Music Man (and by classic, I mean the 1962 Robert Preston version), Professor Harold Hill convinces the people of River City, Iowa that their youth are in serious danger of delinquency now that a new pool table has been brought to their community. Of course this is all just a ploy to scam the townspeople into buying musical instruments (the scam makes more sense if you watch the film). 

As good a conman as Harold Hill is, his plan never would have worked if the people of River City had studied a little physics, because a pool table is an excellent way to learn about momentum..


Like velocity and acceleration, momentum is another word that means something slightly different to scientists than it does to lay people. A few episodes ago, I mentioned that velocity is the rate at which something’s position changes. Velocity and momentum are closely related because momentum can be thought of us a measurement of how hard it is to stop something that is moving. 

We calculate the momentum of an object by multiplying its mass by its velocity. Since mass is measured in kilograms, and velocity in meters per second, momentum is measured in “kilogram meters per second.” Since that’s a bit of a mouthful, more recently people have started referring to momentum using Newton seconds, but most of the time you’ll see it as kg m/s. 


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